• Tastes Of History

What did the Romans ever do for us? Roman Food


In Britain, many of the foods we eat today, and perhaps take for granted, were actually introduced from further afield during the Roman period. The variety of foods available to us now, just as in the past, can be divided into five basic food groups (below right). So, with these five groups in mind, what produce was available and what might an ordinary Roman eat?

The majority of people living around the Mediterranean Sea relied on foods that could grow in very dry areas, with light and not very fertile soil. Mostly they ate what archaeologists call the 'Mediterranean Triad' of wheat (and barley), olives and grapes. Typically cereal crops were made into bread (a staple of almost everyone’s diet even today), soups, porridges or beer. Grapes were used to make wine, vinegar or raisins, the latter because they are preserved and would keep. Olives were eaten in their own right, but could also be crushed to extract oil, a highly lucrative product traded widely across the Mediterranean world and beyond. As today, bread soaked in olive oil was popular, but the oil was also used to cook, burnt in lamps to generate light, as an ingredient in medicines and cosmetics, and as a skin cleaning product in the bathhouse.


In addition to the Mediterranean Triad, people across the Empire farmed animals for meat and dairy products, and grew lots of different kinds of vegetables and fruit. Although not an exhaustive list, these are some of the foods that were especially common, many of which were introduced to Britain in the Roman era:


· Apples, pears, figs, plums (and prunes, which are dried plums) and raisins (made from grapes).


· Green peas (mostly dried like for split-pea soup), lentils and chickpeas.


· Onions, carrots, garlic, cabbages and broccoli.


· Honey (they did not use sugar like we do today).


· Herbs like dill, thyme, oregano, basil and mint.


· Nuts, especially walnuts, chestnuts and acorns.


· Cucumbers.


· Eggs (from chickens, geese and ducks).


· Yoghurt and cheese, made mostly from goat and sheep's milk.


· Mutton (sheep meat), goat meat, pork, ham and bacon, chicken, goose and duck.


· Fish and seafood in all its varieties. Oysters appear to have been especially popular as oyster shells frequently turn up in archaeological excavations at sites all across the Empire. Fish were also fermented to produce a fish sauce that added extra depths of flavour in Roman recipes, including desserts. You can find something like it today in the Asian foods section of the grocery store.


· And Roman snails [2] which were raised in special snail gardens surrounded by water to prevent their escape.


The colour-coded table below hopefully helps to visualise which foods were available or known to the Romans or not:

The foods highlighted in red were not known to the Romans as most were native to South America. Although the Americas clearly existed, no European was aware of the continent's existence until Norsemen ('Vikings') who, in the late 10th-century AD, explored and settled areas of the North Atlantic including the north-eastern fringes of North America. The Norse settlements on the island of Greenland, for example, lasted for almost 500 years. Whereas the remains of buildings found at L'Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland in 1960, revealed this Norse settlement had been small and did not last nearly as long. It was not until after Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery in Ad 1492, when he quite by accident found the Americas, that Europeans were able to import novel foods from the New World to the Old. So, for the Romans there were:


· No cocoa beans and therefore no chocolate!


· No potatoes, so no crisps or chips!


· No tomatoes which meant the typical pizza with its tomato sauce did not exist [1].


The foods highlighted in ORANGE were native to Asia:


· Bananas in SE Asia (Indonesia, Vietnam, etc.) and Papua New Guinea.


· Oranges in southern China, north-eastern India, and perhaps south-eastern Asia. They were first cultivated in China around 2,500 BC, with sweet oranges not arriving in Europe until the late 15th- or early 16th-century courtesy of Italian and Portuguese merchants.


· Rice, noodles and pasta from China. Rice was introduced to Europe through western Asia, and much later to the Americas through European colonisation. As for pasta, that quintessential Italian food, in the 1st-century BC the Roman poet Horace wrote of fried sheets of dough called lagana. Unfortunately, the method of cooking these sheets does not match the current definition of either a fresh or dry pasta product. Perhaps lagana only had similar basic ingredients and perhaps the shape. In the 2nd-century AD, the Greek physician Galen mentioned itrion, referring to all homogenous mixtures from flour and water. The Latinised itrium was used as a reference to a kind of boiled dough.


The food highlighted in GREEN, namely ice cream, has an unusual history. Ancient civilisations had used ice to chill foods for thousands of years. So, a kind of ice-cream was supposedly 'invented' in China about 200 BC when a milk and rice mixture became frozen after it had been packed in snow to keep it chilled. Much later the Roman Emperor Nero (AD 37-68) is supposed to have sent slaves to nearby mountain tops to bring back fresh snow that was then flavoured with fruit toppings and served as an early form of 'slushy'. The truth of either tale is uncertain at best, but it is not beyond possibility that our ancestors discovered 'ice cream' or 'invented' the slushy by accident.

Endnotes:

1. For a Roman-style pizza recipe, pour olive oil over a pizza dough base adding feta cheese, thyme, onions and/or garlic (or other topping, but not tomatoes!). Bake for between 5-10 mins depending on your oven temp, until the base is crisp and the cheese melted.

2. The Roman Snail (Helix pomatia), also known as the Burgundy snail, edible snail or escargot, is one of Europe's largest species of large, edible, air-breathing land snail.


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